Wednesday, September 28, 2011

the rag trade

1947 Carole King dress ad, from Silverbluestar's Flickr.

If you have worn or owned a vintage dress with a Carole King, Doris Dodson, or Minx Modes label in it, there's a possibility that at some point it passed through the hands of my grandmother, or one of my great aunts or uncles.  In the mid-1930s, the concept of junior fashions was born in St. Louis, Missouri (I was born there, too--but a bit later) making it, for a time, an unexpected hub of the fashion industry.  A 1940 article in the Palm Beach Daily News had this to say about St. Louis' burgeoning dress business: "The junior dress industry in St. Louis today employs more than 6,000 people and is growing as rapidly as trained help can be found for the machines.  The industry is entirely a local project.  There has been no outside capital to subsidize it.  Eighty percent of the designers employed are young girls fresh from the art school of Washington University [in St. Louis]."

None of my relations designed the dresses--I don't think any went to art school, either--but my great aunt Margaret (seen in the above photo with her brother and nephews) worked as a bookkeeper for the Forest City Manufacturing Company, which owned several junior dress lines.  

My mother remembers her Aunt Margaret saying she worked for "Grace Dozier Durocher's company." Grace was married to Leo "The Lip" Durocher who played baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals.  She was head designer for the Forest City Manufacturing Company, and later had her own line in the company, Carole King.  I didn't find a lot of information about Grace.  She and Leo Durocher were married for nine years and divorced in 1943.  I thought this divorce notice--from the October 11, 1943 Milestones section of Time magazine--was pretty funny: "She [Grace Dozier Durocher] said that The Lip was 'constantly of nagging disposition,' and asked no alimony."

Here's Margaret with her niece, my mother.  (I'm loving the scalloped trim on Margaret's dress here.)  Margaret would bring home sample dresses from work for her three eldest nieces, one of whom was my mom.  The dresses would all be the same style/cut, but in different colors.  My mother would get the last pick, and usually ended up with the pink dress.  She was happy though.  No one in the family had a lot of money, and a brand new dress that wasn't a hand-me-down was something rare.

My grandmother Marian (in the center of the above photo) worked in the St. Louis dress industry, too, doing piecework sewing.  My mom told me that a couple of her uncles also worked in the industry as fabric cutters.

It's a little sad to think that this industry that employed many of my family members no longer exists in St. Louis--or even in this country, really.  My grandparents and my great aunts and uncles had very little money to spare, but they still managed to dress well--in clothing designed and manufactured right here in the US!  Amazing.



  1. Super story, and you are lucky to have the family photos to go along with it.

    I bet St. Louis would love to have those 6000 jpbs today.

  2. I live in St Louis and we often find those Mix Modes labels! I'm loving that dress in the ad *drools*

  3. What a wonderful piece of family history! I will most certainly be thinking of this when I hold a Minx Modes or Doris Dodson dress now and in the future.

    One of the many reasons I love vintage is the detail and care that went into the making of each piece. Something some modern clothing lacks.

    Love the scallop detail on Margaret's dress too!

  4. wow that's so great to have such a connection to those coolio labels! and those great photos...I feel like I know nothing about my rellies compared to you!

  5. You have a wonderful story here. Have you seen this short youtube video on the St Louis apparel industry?

  6. No Jen, I hadn't seen that--thank you so much! When I was researching Grace Durocher I did find a bit about Leo Durocher somehow getting involved in the labor disputes. In 1935, labor unions voted to boycott Cardinals games because of "actions" Leo took when Grace crossed a picket line.

  7. That's funny (at least in hind sight). Fashion magazines up to the 1970's are full of ads from regional brands, and it is so interesting to hear about research into the history of your own region.

  8. What a great family story! It is terribly sad that there are so few clothes made in America any more, especially since those dresses are all terribly cute!


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